Senators convened for the start of the 113th Session of Congress Thursday with a renewed focus on the nation's fiscal concerns, as leaders of both parties put down familiar markers on the forthcoming debate over spending cuts and the nation's debt.
The Senate will remain in Democrats’ solid control; the party has an expanded majority of 55 seats, up from 53, giving Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) added clout over the chamber.
After the swearing-in of new members at midday Thursday, Reid acknowledged the sharp partisan divides of the last congressional session and said he yearned for more compromise in the coming years.
"The recent effort to avert the 'fiscal cliff' was an example of both the divisions and the collaborations that mark this moment in history," Reid said. "Although the process of resolving some of the fiscal issues facing this country was a difficult and protracted one, in the end our two parties came together to protect America’s middle class. That is something of which we can all be proud."
In forthcoming fiscal negotiations, Reid said his caucus "will continue to stand strong for the principle of balance. Any future budget agreements must balance the need for thoughtful spending reductions with revenue from the wealthiest among us and closing wasteful tax loopholes.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear that Republicans will remain focused squarely on federal spending cuts.
“President Obama declared the other night that those he calls ‘rich’ are now paying their ‘fair share.’ So it’s time to move on," he said. "The president got his revenue, now it’s time to turn squarely to the real problem, which is spending."
Vice President Biden administered the oath of office to 34 new and reelected senators in alphabetical order, beginning with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the chamber's first openly gay member.
A record 20 women will now hold seats in the upper chamber and several of them will chair committees never before led by a woman. In a bit of symbolism, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had her official Senate pin pinned to her lapel by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the Senate's longest-serving woman.
"We're making progress, 20 and counting, but I don't think we should be satisfied until we have the same number of women in the Senate that represent the percentage of the population who are women," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "So we still have a long way to go."
Of the 13 new senators joining the chamber Thursday, nine are Democrats or caucusing with Democrats: Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Tim Kaine (Va.), independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), Christopher Murphy (Conn.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). (Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) joined the Senate just last weekend in place of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).)
Despite the Democratic gains, several of the caucus's new members have vowed not to be reliable "yes" votes for Reid. Donnelly, King, Kaine and Heitkamp especially campaigned as moderates eager and willing to strike deals across the aisle, while King has signaled that he could switch allegiances to the Republican Party if the GOP retakes the Senate in two years.
An early test of Democratic unity could materialize in the coming days as Senate leaders consider two competing proposals to address some of the chamber’s procedural rules for filibusters.
The first proposal was drafted by senior Democrats and Republicans, who would like to lessen the ability of a lone senator or a small group to impede progress through delaying tactics — or the mere threat of those tactics — that sometimes prevent Senate leaders from even considering certain bills.
The plan was drafted by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other longer-serving members who would allow a filibuster on final passage of legislation, meaning that a bill could fail with fewer than 60 votes.
But younger Democratic senators, mostly elected in the past six years, want a senator carrying out a filibuster to actually speak at length on the chamber floor. If that senator eventually gave in, the majority would be able to proceed to final passage on a simple 51-vote majority.
"The Senate is simply not working as it should," is all Reid said on the issue during his floor remarks Thursday, adding that it will be taken up again after next week's week-long recess.
Thursday's proceedings brought several former senators back to the Capitol, most of whom escorted senators to the dais for their swearing-in. Former vice president Walter Mondale stood with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), while Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) brought back former Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Joseph Tydings (D-Md.). Newly elected Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) was escorted by former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and the man Donnelly is succeeding, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). After the swearing-in ceremony, former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) posed for a picture with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) at the famed Ohio Clock outside the chamber.
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